The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Bible as Ethnography?

I have recently come across this series of blog posts, titled “The Bible As Ethnography.” I have so far only read the introduction, and I am now curious as to how the rest will turn out. The author argues that the traditional notion of a “Middle East” distinct from India and Sub-Saharan Africa is incorrect, and that it is very likely that there was a good deal of cultural diffusion and movement along the coast of eastern Africa into and out of the Middle East and India. When one looks at the maps, this makes a good deal of sense, and certain types of cultures thrived in all areas (primarily nomadic pastoralists). Based on this, the author argues that there is likely a good deal of similarity between the people of Sub-Saharan Africa and the people who composed what eventually become the Old Testament.

Three points struck me in the introduction: 1) the notion that Sub-Saharan Africa should not be treated as an entirely different region than Eurasia, but rather that features that are likely to result in cultural continuity and relations over a larger area (such as coastline along Eastern Africa) should be considered is, I think, quite reasonable and very valuable. The tendency to cut-off regions from each other when studying the past probably reflects our own current preconceptions more than it reflects actual history. In addition, similar adaptations often (though not always) carry similar cultural baggage, and so looking at one such culture, whether through the Bible or through more standard ethnography, may provide a useful perspective for studying another.

2) However, there is a considerable amount of physical distance between the ancient Middle East and pastoralists in southeast Africa. While there are likely to be similarities in these cultures, there are also likely to be some rather stark differences, caused both by the need to adapt to different local conditions and also to the unique culture-histories of each group. So, while sources that describe life in one location may have information applicable to another, there is no reason to expect that any particular idea or concept is valuable across the board – physical and ethnographic evidence should always be used when attempting to move an idea from the realm of “tantalizing possibility” into that of “anthropological data.”

3) The author describes the Hebrew god as a king, and the prophets as intermediaries, and discusses the fact that there are numerous cultures in which the royalty will not communicate directly with the commoners, but will rather rely on intermediaries to take messages back and forth. I’m not sure where he’s going with this. If he’s saying that this is a model for thinking of a removed kingship, well, all well and good and I have no real objection, except to say that it is vital to keep in mind that this is a model and it must not be reified without hard data to back it up.

On the other hand, if he is saying that the Hebrew god and the prophets are directly analogues to an actual royal lineage and their messengers and that these real people become mythologized and deified…well, that’s kinda’ messy. This seems to be directly descended from an idea that was common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, that the gods of mythology are simply the mythic remembrances of real people (so, ya' see, there actually was a Zuess, but he was just this really powerful chieftain who eventually become remembered as a thunder god, and the lightning represents the fact that he had a deep voice..and…ummm…). The idea is not completely ridiculous, but it also is not very well supported. There is evidence that some mythological figures may have had real historical antecedents (King Arthur may be a mythologized remembrance of an actual warlord, for example), but there is also plenty of evidence that many of the gods and spirits of mythology are no representative of real people of the past, but are symbolic constructs that evolved over time from earlier concepts – not earlier people.

It is likely that the same is true of Yahweh – there is evidence that the ancient Hebrews were polytheistic, having come from a fairly standard animistic tradition in which the nature spirits eventually evolved into gods, and the gods become fewer in number due to both mythological evolution and the consolidation of power by certain priestly elites, and eventually you end up with a monotheistic belief system. No historical king separate from those he ruled needed.

However, I have not yet read the rest of the essays, though I will endeavor to do so. It looks interesting, but if you decide to read as well (and I think that you should), look out for the author's assumptions – but also be aware that he may have a few surprises and that what look like asumptions in the introduction may be well-supported in the text.


Kay said...

I read his most recent installment (not sure if going in order is necessary) and yes.. there were quite a few assumptions and general laziness in writing. For example, not all women in the bible are prostitutes… a statement that is contested in the surprisingly articulate comments section below.

Really though what struck me in this piece was that he never really addressed the question of “so what?” Was Mary a virgin in the “never had sex before” kind of way or in a differently culturally defined way? Does it matter? It matters to some people I guess because it symbolizes things (like miracles) but he didn’t get into that, they why it matters thus never really proving that it does matter.

Or maybe I read it too fast.

Evan Davis said...

I love when speculation ventures from the objective to the subjective. He could say anything really. As long as it makes sense in some circles he will be given the title of "authority" and quoted by someone who would benefit from his viewpoint. Yay subjectiveness.

I'm personally waiting for either timetravel or God's records to find out what really happened or both: time travel to his records (I hope they're vinyl).

Anthroslug said...

Dude, you know that God is totally a Frank Zappa Vinyl-only kinda' guy.

I have read more of this thing, and I intend to write more about it. It's interesting, but the guy's reasoning is often rather flawed. Still, he does have a few good ideas, and those are worth discussing.